Activism in black and white

This column first appeared here in the Sunday Times on Woman’s Day, 9th August 2020.


“Post your top ten this-thats or your favourite what-nots, or eleventy album covers, no explanation, no captions.” Surely this blurb, which gets copied and pasted onto all of these posts, is both an explanation and a caption?

I don’t get it. But then there’s a lot I don’t get about nomination challenges.

In the latest chainmail to go viral, women around the world are challenging each other to post flattering black-and-white photos of themselves on social media and tag other women to do the same, as a display of solidarity and feminism. Which is already an exercise in tautology; everyone knows all black-and-white photos are flattering, that’s why they only invented colour ones much later.

I don’t want to be the Grinch here, especially since I’m as much of a fan of finding good lighting, backdrops and angles for a shameless selfie as anyone, but it feels as if in the course of making ourselves look as good as possible, we may have lost sight of why we’re doing this thing in the first place.

The campaign began in Turkey, with a strong message, as a response to the anger of Turkish women, who wake up every day to a new black-and-white news photo of yet another murdered woman. Posting our pictures to stand in solidarity against femicide and show that one day, that could quite easily be any of our own pictures plastered across the news. But I think that’s too long for a hashtag, so the message got lost along the way.

When this commission first pinged into my inbox, I didn’t want to take it. I only write about things I find humour in, so I avoid current politics (not funny in the slightest) and gender-based violence. I find religion hilarious, but I avoid writing about that too, out of respect for those who take it so seriously. 

And while I find plenty funny about blatant narcissism on social media, my own included, I really can’t find anything funny about my friend, Abi, sitting at a restaurant table enjoying a sunny lunch with her husband in London the other day, and having unknown liquid hurled at her from a car speeding by. Only to discover it was a water bomb-attack by a bunch of unacceptable tossers, targeting any women they could hit.

And I definitely don’t find anything funny about Turkish, or South African women for that matter, never being given full-colour acknowledgement, support, solutions or hope for the horrors they’re (barely) living through.

So, I definitely was not going to write this column. I even wrote the polite email turning my editor down. Telling her that besides having a sense-of-humour failure, I also really don’t want to give the women choosing to post their beautiful selves a bollocking. We get enough of that from men.

But in the end I wrote it (obviously, since you’re reading it), because I couldn’t stop thinking that for a gender which uses its time more wisely than any other species on this planet, running businesses and holding down jobs, simultaneously managing households, budgets and tempers, and teaching high-school algebra at the kitchen table, all while whipping up a quick spaghetti Bolognese for seven, that this particular social media challenge feels like a wasted opportunity.

How does a selfie without the right messaging share a message of support for women at risk of being murdered? Doesn’t it only really share a message of flawless skin? The world needs so much right now; what it doesn’t need is another out-of-context selfie. It’s a bit like honouring your arm by buying it a new pair of shoes.

It’s activism, but not as we know it. Which is appropriate I guess, since 2020 is a year, but not as we know it.

But the hashtag has over 4.1 million posts on Instagram, and Paris Hilton and Eva Longoria are doing it, so maybe I’m wrong.

I’m sorry I didn’t take up your black-and-white-challenge-with-no-context, but you have my word: I will always support an end to gender-based-violence anywhere in the world, as well as supporting the hell out of women. Including those who own businesses, the female clients and colleagues I’m on Zoom calls with while they’re trying to manage two crying six-year-olds. And the women on Tinder trying to find a decent guy and finding only dick pics.

And I will definitely support my friend in London – by being a character witness at her murder trial. Because when the cops find those despicable ass(beep-beep-beeps) who were hurling water-bombs at women in London, she will absolutely kill them, whilst simultaneously campaigning for women’s rights, rioting against the patriarchy, doing an online shop and running a business. I am going to support and acknowledge the hell out of those #brave, #strong women, with full explanations AND captions. Challenge accepted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *